At some point in our lives, everyone has experienced a very bad or extremely weird first date – and that goes doubly true for anyone who’s ever answered a personals ad in the newspaper or on the internet. So I suspect theatergoers everywhere can relate in one form or another to the trials and tribulations of Bruce and Prudence, the scarred, yet very likable central characters in Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy” now on stage at The Acorn Theater in Three Oaks.
As Durang points out in no uncertain terms, it’s not easy to forge an intimate connection with another person in this fast-paced, mixed-up and very impersonal world. Yet Bruce (John Bonner) and Prudence (Katie Dufresne) put aside their personal qualms and take the advice of their respective shrinks: He’s to place a personals ad; she’s to respond to one. And as fate would have it, that’s how the two first meet.
Of course, their dinner doesn’t go well. Bruce wears his feelings on his sleeve and blurts out whatever thoughts cross his mind – whether appropriate or not. And if he feels like crying, he does – which is a major turn off for Prudence, who likes her men a little more macho. Which means Bruce’s live-in boyfriend, Bob (Sean Kinslow), is also problematic.
Although the date crashes and burns, the two find themselves reunited when Prudence once again answers another personals ad – this time written for Bruce by his touchy-feely therapist, Charlotte (Megan Kelleher). And what does Prudence’s therapist think about the situation? A lot – since the sexually dysfunctional Stuart (Chris Michael) had had inappropriate (and very quick) relations with his client and is jealous of her involvement with Bruce.
Then – believe it or not – things get even stranger.
Although Durang’s witty comedy didn’t have a long life either off or on Broadway in the early 1980s, “Beyond Therapy” has since become one of his most oft-produced plays in America. The playwright, probably best known for the scathing “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” is a sharp social commentator whose works are filled with equal doses of pathos and laughs – but the bite is always lurking and waiting to pounce. That’s certainly the case with “Beyond Therapy,” which brings together two unlikely, tortured souls who turn from loathing one another to learning invaluable lessons as a result of their odd encounters – no thanks to their equally screwed-up (if not more so) mental health professionals.
The message – that we’re all messed up, so why not take a shot at life – is well illustrated by director Michael Fernandez. From Bruce and Prudence’s initial attempt at a quiet dinner to the madcap mayhem that rampages throughout much of the second act, Fernandez’s pacing is excellent, as his rhythms and beats are in sync with the text at all times. Plus, his staging of the climactic scenes is especially well conceived and executed.
But more importantly, while he’s allowed his actors to explore the boundaries of their characters, he’s kept them focused and under control to make them as real – and as identifiable – as possible.
That’s especially true of Bruce and Prudence.
Of the two, Bonner has the most difficult character to bring to life. His Bruce is part puppy dog who’s eager to please its master, part child with no filters to regulate its actions, and part weird neighbor who makes you uneasy with his presence. The result is a man who, quite frankly, is somewhat creepy, but in a sweet, innocent and non-threatening sort of way. As the story progresses, though, Bonner’s skillful performance adds layers to Bruce’s personality that makes you wonder: Could he be the perfect match for Prudence?
Dufresne, in her first “real acting gig,” comes from Chicago’s world of improv, which prepared her well for Prudence. It’s a role that – at least throughout the first two thirds of the show – is mostly reactive to the situations unfolding around her, and Dufresne’s responses – vocally and facially – are often priceless. (She can change direction in the middle of a sentence quicker than a lightning flash.) As such, she gives a finely nuanced and delightfully understated performance – at least until sweet Prudence has had her fill of the nonsense confronting her.
Fine support is provided by Kinslow, whose drama queen Bob sashays onto the stage and immediately commands your attention. (His eyes are especially revealing). And Michael’s Stuart is appropriately smarmy and cocky.
Kelleher creates a fun character, but she occasionally garbled and swallowed her words on opening night, which then made Charlotte’s lines difficult to understand.
Sets and lights serve their purposes. And scene changes are quick and efficient.
So at the end of the show, the question remains: Can a crazy, emotional bisexual and a woman who hates imperfection achieve happiness together? You certainly don’t need to be a licensed therapist to come to your own conclusion!
The Acorn Theater, 107 Generations Dr., Three Oaks. Friday-Saturday through Sep. 25. $20. 269-756-3879. http://www.acorntheater.com